Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

Phil Coulson is ready to explode. Melinda May’s disappearance has pushed him into a field of emotional landmines, where it would be all too easy to just blow up and let his anger, his rage, and his frustration spill into his behavior. And in the past, he’s done that. As he admits (to a waiter who likely doesn’t understand him), allowing himself to go dark and exact punishment ended up leaving him with more regrets than satisfaction. And there’s a tiny voice in his head now, telling him not to let his passion get the better of him. Telling him to be patient, trust himself to do what’s right, and not let impulsiveness ruin his plans. The fact that it’s May’s voice might help explain why he’s listening to it—even when May herself would be super-annoyed by his willingness to open up and confess his vulnerabilities and his situation to a total stranger.

Jeffrey Mace is feeling similarly volatile, but for a different reason. It’s almost the opposite of Coulson: Mace needs to be let off the chain, and feel like he’s a contributing part of the team, or else he’s going to burst. Since being “demoted” to just the public face of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, he’s struggling to figure out his role. The others see him as most useful in the capacity he’s been serving from the start, a liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the public, the best way to put a positive spin on the existence of Inhumans and turn the tide of public opinion in their favor. But since he’s seen their heroics up close—and more importantly, lost the sense of strength that came with being constantly super-powered, thanks to his soon-to-be-fatal injections—Mace is no longer satisfied with glad-handing the press and sweet-talking government officials. He wants to do what everyone else does, and when he’s finally confronted with a situation that could potentially be disastrous for the agency, he steps up and figures out his position: a blocker, someone who sets aside their own self-interest and runs headlong into the opposing side. The only problem with his choice is that he’s not a blocker to the rest of the world. He’s the reason S.H.I.E.L.D. can still exist.

Emotional fireworks kind of take a backseat, though, when you’ve got a literally explosive Inhuman in the mix. Terrence Shockley was already a monster when he was just one of the leaders of the Watchdogs and Ivanov’s sidekick, a guy ready to murder all those he finds too different than “regular” humans. One of the best and most unexpected twists in “BOOM” came when Shockley threatened Senator Nadeer by triggering a Terrigen crystal in her office, only to discover he himself was the Inhuman. His horrified scream as he entered his cocoon was a delightful reversal of fortune—like Nadeer, I gave out a little whoop of schadenfreude at the irony—but then the fireworks really began. Killing Nadeer so abruptly, and in such a surprising manner, was the kind of welcome narrative goosing S.H.I.E.L.D. has been regularly delivering this season, especially since the completion of the Ghost Rider arc. The series has jettisoned the mannered and predictable slow-build tactics that occasionally bogged it down in past seasons, and while it means the season has yet to deliver a superlative, one-of-the-all-time-great episodes—”Deals With Our Devils” comes closest—it also means there hasn’t been a single dud, which is really impressive considering the show’s spotty track record.

The reason for this is due in large part to the series finally cracking the formula for ongoing crackerjack excitement. Whereas it used to be every couple of episodes (here a “Failed Experiments,” there a “Maveth”), now it’s been a steady delivery of smart and breathless action, punctuated by brief pauses of character development and exposition. And sure, not every director brings the flair of a Kevin Tancharoen to the fight sequences, but the scripts have managed to strip much of the hemming and hawing dross that used to sink the occasional installment. The show barrels ahead at moments where it used to be stingy with advancing the story, and that commitment has rewarded these shorter arcs with a sense of frenetic abandon.

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“BOOM” is a good example of this dedication to ongoing thrills. It’s easy to imagine a second-season version of this episode, in which the capture of Shockley was the finale, with the stinger being the reveal of his plan to blow S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director sky high. Instead, we get Fitz and Simmons concocting a method of capturing the new Inhuman, and Daisy abandoning the plan to try and capture his essence in favor of wearing him down, which is both visually more entertaining (a guy blowing up repeatedly!) and more logical, given her failed efforts in the lab to absorb the kinetic energy from controlled experiments of Shockley’s power. It was almost a return to the FItzSimmons of season one—charming characters providing the technical know-how to wrap up a mission of the week, only now with the added layers of depth and emotional resonance that come from their relationship. When Jemma launches herself at Fitz after his aiding Mace in slamming Shockley in a containment unit right before the Watchdog blew himself up, that sense of relief and exhilaration is infectious, because it’s grounded in the deep well of feeling the show has built up for the couple.

Let’s face it: It’s tough to beat watching a guy who can blow himself up in terms of sheer aesthetic enjoyment. Shockley’s power made for a great means of launching the first assault against S.H.I.E.L.D. from Anton Ivanov. And while the regeneration eventually became a largely off-camera affair (likely by necessity—I wonder how much each CGI sequence cost), the Watchdog’s first slow, sputtering reassemblage of himself on the ground in the middle of nowhere was one the best effects of the season, the reverse full-body equivalent of one of Robbie’s transformations into Ghost Rider. Unlike Nadeer’s brother, or James’ self-serving self-loathing, Terrence’s discovery that he’s an Inhuman leads him to a sacrifice play. “An undetectable suicide bomber who gets to walk away,” as Mace describes him, which conveys the appropriate level of danger. And once Shockley learns there’s no risk of his own demise, he puts his powers to use in the only manner he’s ever known: Doing harm to the Inhuman cause, this time by helping orchestrate the capture of Jeffrey Mace.

All of the above would normally mean any emotional heft took a backseat, but Phil Coulson’s drive to find May leads him to an unexpectedly rewarding destination. Agnes Kitsworth is a human plot device in a lot of ways—the doomed woman who triggers the actions of the antagonist—but her own weakness ends up lending humanity and depth to Holden Radcliffe right when he was threatening to become more cartoonish. (If anything, Mack comes off the most one-dimensional this episode, his “let her go” mentality to Coulson’s pursuit of May being both weirdly uncharacteristic and way too soon.) The Framework is no longer just a means of keeping May under control. It’s an entire world, a place where human consciousness can exist indefinitely without decay or death. Agnes isn’t even weak for choosing it—as Coulson acknowledges, it’s the smart play.

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And that’s what makes the “LMD” arc of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally become more than just Ultron-lite. Radcliffe’s intentions, as Agnes points out, have always been about helping humanity, preserving and extending life. And what he’s created is essentially “San Junipero,” from the episode of Black Mirror in which people can choose to indefinitely live out their time in a digital world of perpetual freedom. It’s a place that makes people happy—or at least mimics the sense of happiness as best as possible. That’s a dream worth fighting for, and when our heroes confront the reality of Radcliffe’s creation, there’s going to be some hard questions about what, exactly, should be done. Coulson will likely eventually find May, but there’s a very real possibility she may no longer want to return.

Stray Observations:

  • A few good Daisy lines tonight. After learning that Nadeer really is dead—something she had only seconds before confidently said couldn’t be the case—she rallies. “Okay, well, we can’t be too sad.” Chloe Bennet’s delivery of the resigned “I can try” to FitzSimmons’ exhortations to absorb Shockley’s power was also great.
  • “Fitz, you’re brilliant!” Yes, Fitz, glibly push the “we both said it at the same time” angle. It’s why we like you.
  • Mace’s anxiety about needing to feel helpful reinforced the idea that he’s a man in over his head. Plus, admitting he got pinned in 10 seconds that morning was just funny.
  • I’m really looking forward to the inevitable rebellion from Aida. Her little moment of confronting the idea she has a doppelganger tonight was inspired, as was Mallory Jansen’s dispirited delivery of the question, “I’m not unique?” With that line, she vaulted into the position of “most affecting A.I. in the MCU.”
  • Also, her very funny description of the newly Darkhold-ified Framework was a good bit. “The earth has no edges…it’s round.”

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